On Fire

There are few things as primal as a whole animal impaled on a cross and grilled over an open outdoor fire. If you are offended by this image or concept, please turn the page; this isn’t just a delicious and festive way of life in some cultures, it is also a revered and necessary one. In Argentina, a country known for its spectacular beef, cooking meat over an open fire is known as an asado, which simply translated means “roast ”

Sebastian Muñoz is a polo-pony trainer by day and moonlights as an Argentine asado chef  He recently teamed up with Colin Ambrose, a local chef and restaurateur, to host an authentic asado in the garden behind Ambrose’s restaurant, Estia’s Little Kitchen in Sag Harbor.

Several huge grills were set up, and on the ground a ring of rocks protected an area of burning firewood on one side and charcoal on the other  The grills were used to cook corn and a variety of other vegetables, including squash and eggplant, as well as sausages and four cuts of beef.  The central fire on the ground was for a whole lamb.

“It is very important for the coals to cook down so they don’t flavor the meat,” explained Amalia Salado, Muñoz’s girlfriend and helper  “And all we use is lemon juice and salt on the meat.”

Muñoz led off with entraña, the Spanish word for flat cuts of beef such as hanger or skirt steak, and followed that with cooked ribs, ribeye, and asado de tira, another rib section  Each has its own fat content and flavor  The 35-pound lamb took about two hours, splayed out a few feet from the coals.  

Meanwhile, Ambrose had prepared three chimichurri sauces to go with the various meats, and slathered the grilled corn with butter, chilies, and lime. A simple leafy-green salad rounded out the meal.

Francis Mallmann, the Patagonian chef, author, and restaurateur (who is also a cohort of the gang at Amber Waves Farm in Amagansett; see page 80) has made cooking over open fires an art form. He followed his first hit book, On Fire, a stunning photographic account of his asado adventures, with two more, along with documentaries and videos of him cooking every conceivable Argentine food in every landscape.

Mallmann uses a variety of methods: cooking on a grill; cooking on a cast-iron grill known as a plancha; a curanto, which is cooking in a pit with hot stones (a method that has been used for thousands of years), and asador, the aforementioned cooking of the whole animal on a wood or iron cross, roasting slowly at some distance from the fire. Cooking in ashes is known as rescoldo.

Generally, cooking over open fires takes time, and has a ceremonial, almost ritualistic feel. It’s a group activity. While some consider the cooking and eating of meat in the great outdoors as a macho, testosterone-fueled activity, Mallmann insists it is a tender and fragile act, feminine in fact, requiring great respect for the animal and how it is treated, in life and afterward.

It was a hot and humid evening in Estia’s garden, made all the more so by the various grills and fire on the ground. But the food was delicious, simply prepared and seasoned and served with lemonade and Macari wine from the North Fork. Under the open sky, next to a garden, it was an education about an ancient cooking method, respected and revered around the world.

Estia’s Red Chimichurri

1 large red pepper, flesh only

3 dried arbol chilies

4 dried guajillo chilies

1 cup diced red onion

1/2 cup whole Muir Glen organic canned

tomatoes, drained and chopped

2 Tbsp. lemon juice

1 tsp. red wine vinegar

12 cloves garlic

Salt to taste

Remove stems and seeds from dried chilies and

rehydrate in two cups of simmering water. Drain

when soft. Chop garlic in a food processor, add

red pepper and rehydrated chilies, tomato, lemon

juice, and vinegar. Pulse until smooth then

pour into a bowl and add diced red onion. Place

in a covered jar and allow to sit, refrigerated, for

two days.

Colin’s Grilled Corn

20 ears of corn, silks removed but husks intact.

Put husks back in place and tie with twine,

close to the cob. Trim rest of husk away so

there is only about four inches of husk wrapping

each cob.

Make a compound butter with the following:

1 lb. softened butter

2 Tbsp. Estia’s House Blend Seasoning

(recipe below)

2 Tbsp. ground dried guajillo peppers

Juice of 3 large limes

Combine all ingredients. Spread a tablespoon of

compound butter on each ear of corn, add a slice

of lime, and wrap just the cob with tin foil, leaving

tied husk exposed. Cook on grill, turning occasionally,

for about 15 minutes or until done.

Estia’s House Blend seasoning

2 Tbsp. ground white pepper

2 Tbsp. ground black pepper

2 Tbsp. toasted ground cumin seeds

6 Tbsp. kosher salt

Combine and store in an airtight container.

Laura Donnelly